REFLECTION: The seldom told story of Otto Shimek

by Michael McCarthy
Blue Water Pax Christi

Otto Shimek

Otto Shimek

There were pilgrimages to the parish church in the area where he died, twice a year during the period when Poland, and all Eastern Europe, were breaking free of the Soviet Union and Communist control.  His name was celebrated in many circles, from the most devout to the purely political.  Lech Walesa of the Solidarity Union, leading the way to freedom for Poland in those times, praised Otto Schimek’s witness, that of a 19 year old Nazi soldier who wouldn’t kill Polish peasants in World War II.  Pope John Paul II wanted to visit his grave, but was at the last moment dissuaded by advisors.

Now Otto Schimek’s story is buried, as well as his body missing—no reliable gravestone—an unknown soldier, who, as his last letter before he was executed for “deserting” testifies, was a courageous Catholic, a person faithful unto death.  He had refused to be part of Hitler’s lethal acts against Polish citizens.

Very little of his life has been written in English.  We know from German army records that he was born May 5, 1925 and died on November 14, 1944, for refusing to serve Hitler’s Wermacht forces.  Two books in Polish, and the website of the Catholic Church in Machowa Poland, give some detail to his short life, relying on his family’s accounts of his early life in a poor district of Vienna Austria, and the problems he had with recruitment into the German army.   He was raised to practice his faith, to do good for others, to go to mass on Sunday.  He missed some school helping his mother’s small sewing business.

When conscripted into the armies of Hitler he told his family and others that he couldn’t kill anyone.  Then before his death he said again he couldn’t kill, “the war was provoked by the Germans and is not Christian.”  In his final letter before his execution he said, “I am in a happy mood. What do we have to lose? Nothing, only our poor lives, as they cannot kill our souls. What a hope! Today, I am going to heaven, where the Father is waiting. May God guard you so that you will join me.”

An Austrian Cardinal wrote in support of his cause, an Austrian Jesuit writer against.  A few journalists have investigated and are divided.  Most all Polish authors are convinced he was a hero of faith—a remarkable young man who followed his conscience.

Padriac Kenney, a Professor of History and International Studies at Indiana University, and Director of their Polish Studies Center, has assisted in this effort to make better known to the U.S. public the story of Otto Schimek’s life and death.  He has this to say after reviewing the most relevant book [The Debate About Grenadier Schimek by Lech Niekrasz], published only in Polish.

“Niekrasz devotes the book to debunking, quite effectively, the writings of those who say Schimek was an ordinary deserter. And he does track down one old peasant who recalls the whole story and appears to confirm that Schimek really did hide two partisans, was found out and ordered to shoot them, refused, and was eventually executed. Niekrasz points out that execution was usually not the punishment for desertion, except in exceptional cases.”

A young Austrian soldier died by firing squad in 1944 for refusing the orders of an unjust war.  May we discover more of his story, which has similarity to that of the recently beatified Franz Jagerstatter who also wouldn’t fight for Hitler.  What a hope this gives in today’s world so wearied by wars without end, to all of us who take courage in the saving mercy of our God, whose justice transcends all borders.

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